This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

Wuerl named to Washington


Those who have watched Bishop Donald Wuerl during his 18-year tenure as head of the Pittsburgh diocese use words like “deliberative,” “consultative” and “methodical” to describe his style. That manner was evident May 16 as Wuerl, whose appointment to succeed Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as archbishop of Washington was announced by the Vatican earlier that day, met the media in the archdiocese’s Hyattsville, Md., pastoral center offices.

The press prodded and poked. Wuerl parried.

Would he deny Communion to one of his new city’s prominent constituencies -- pro-choice Catholic politicians? “The first task of a bishop is to teach,” responded Wuerl, who said that persuasion and dialogue were his preferred approach.

Should prospective seminarians with acknowledged “homosexual tendencies” be admitted to study for the priesthood? Such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis with an emphasis on a candidate’s commitment to celibacy, said Wuerl.

Would Wuerl, like McCarrick, use the Washington political pulpit be an outspoken advocate of immigration reform? “The task of the church,” said Wuerl, “is to keep preaching … the dignity and worth of each person” with the legislative details best left to politicians to sort out.

Should Catholics boycott “The DaVinci Code”? People will “make their choices” about seeing the movie, responded the 65-year-old Wuerl, who encouraged those who view the film to “be informed if you are going to see it” by reading “the whole story” in the Gospels.

The biggest problem in the Washington church? Wuerl took a pass, noting that he hadn’t been in the city “even long enough to know how to get back and forth to the cathedral.”

A Pittsburgh native, Wuerl could claim no such ignorance when he returned to assume leadership of that troubled 800,000-Catholic diocese in 1988.

Wuerl inherited a fiscal mess, with the diocese facing a deficit of nearly $3 million. He reacted by freezing salaries and staff, cutting wasteful expenditures, and ultimately, over several years, closing 100 parishes.

Ann Rodgers, veteran religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the nation’s premier “Wuerl watcher,” recalled that difficult time. Its hallmark, she said, was the extensive consultation that took place before a church or parish was shuttered.

“He is definitely a hands-on bishop who wants to know everything that is going on.” “For every decision that gets made, he wants tons of consultation, he wants to hear from people, and he wants people to be part of the decision.” Some welcome that style, while others preferred a more forceful approach.

“You get complaints from people saying that there is too much consultation, so decisions take forever,” said Rodgers. She recalled the case of a pastor who “knew he was going to have to close his school for financial reasons” but was forced by Wuerl to consult widely and involve the parishioners in the decision.

Still, said Rodgers, once Wuerl makes a decision he is prepared to implement and stand behind it. “He wants to know what is going on [and] he doesn’t just say let the lower down guys take care of it,” said Rodgers. “He definitely knows the buck stops here.”

In what was probably Wuerl’s most difficult assignment since his 1966 ordination, he was put in a position in 1986 where no one quite knew where the buck stopped.

Wuerl was tapped that year by the Vatican to be auxiliary bishop to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Hunthausen was under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) for allegedly lax doctrinal and liturgical practices. The Vatican gave Wuerl responsibility in areas traditionally under the archbishop’s purview, a move that alarmed some members of the American hierarchy.

“It soon became clear that no matter what his legal authority, BishopWuerl was, in fact, isolated, with the archbishop [Hunthausen] being one of his few defenders in Seattle,” wrote Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese in Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church.

A high-level commission whose members included Cardinals John O’Connor and Joseph Benardin and San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn eventually recommended that Hunthausen’s powers be restored. Just two years after arriving in Seattle, Wuerl was appointed to Pittsburgh.

“It was very unhappy time which he does not like to discuss,” said Rodgers. Because Wuerl was seen as an enforcer of Vatican orthodoxy in Seattle, said Rodgers, “he came out of it with a very unfair label as an ultraconservative. In fact, he’s a centrist.”

That centrist instinct was evident in 2004 when Wuerl worked with McCarrick to craft a statement from the bishops’ conference on the controversial question of pro-choice politicians and Communion. In late 2003 and early 2004 several bishops, most notably St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, said they would deny Communion to pro-choice politicians. The issue heated up in the spring of 2004, when it became evident that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, would be the Democratic Party nominee for president.

For Wuerl, it wasn’t just a theoretical concern. Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, owns a home in the Pittsburgh area. The candidate occasionally attended Mass in the diocese and received Communion while staying there.

Ultimately, the bishops, in a 183-6 vote at their June 2004 closed-door meeting, agreed to a statement noting their collective “frustration and deep disappointment” with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, but leaving it to individual bishops in their own dioceses to decide who is and isn’t eligible to receive Communion. “The polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends,” said the statement. It continued, “Respect for the Holy Eucharist, in particular, demands that it be received worthily and that it be seen as the source for our common mission in the world.”

Three months later, writing in his diocesan newspaper, Wuerl revisited the issue. “Today,” wrote Wuerl, “given the mobility of the population and the ubiquity and influence of the means of social communications, actions taken by one bishop within a diocese can have immediate national impact and affect the bishops of the rest of the dioceses throughout the country, especially neighboring dioceses that share the same media market.” He urged the bishops to consider procedures under which they would consult with each other prior to making individual statements on controversial issues that resound beyond one diocese’s borders.

That studied and measured approach is typical of Wuerl, said Francesco Cesareo, dean of Duquesne University’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts. “He really tries to build a consensus,” said Cesareo, “and sees himself primarily as a teacher of the faith.”

Wuerl is credited by some with moving aggressively to combat clergy sex abuse in Pittsburgh. Most notably, he overcame Vatican reluctance to remove a priest accused of abuse, Anthony Cipolla, from active ministry. In 1991, Cipolla won an appeal at a Vatican court ordering his reinstatement. Wuerl fought the move and the Vatican’s high court reversed its decision in 1995. Cipolla was laicized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Victims’ advocates say, however, that Wuerl hasn’t done enough to combat clergy abuse. “While Bishop Wuerl took aggressive steps with the Vatican to have one predator priest … from Pittsburgh defrocked, that was an isolated incident,” Mark Serrano, a board member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a May 16 statement. Further, said Serrano, “In 2004 Wuerl used diocesan funds to produce a half-hour television commercial discussing the sex abuse scandal which provided a ‘one-sided, spin-control’ message” and “used this expensive public relations stunt to encourage victims to contact the church rather than police” or SNAP.

“The claim that more victims haven’t come forward in Pittsburgh is more likely attributed to these arbitrary limits under the law and the fact that other prosecutors have not impaneled a grand jury, as Philadelphia prosecutors did, rather than the suggestion that less children were abused in that diocese,” said Serrano.

Wuerl has frequently been mentioned as a possible candidate for promotion. In 2003, when Boston Cardinal Bernard Law resigned, Wuerl was considered a top candidate for that post. He did not get that job, or other openings in New York and Philadelphia for which some thought him a well-suited and logical candidate.

Back at the May 16 news conference, Wuerl noted that McCarrick, during his five-and-a-half years as leader of the Washington archdiocese’s 560,000 Catholics, “set the bar very high as a spiritual leader and pastor of souls and also as an archbishop engaged in the wider community so that the voice of the Gospel is always a part of whatever discussions occupy this community and this country.”

McCarrick was, indeed, a high-profile Washington presence, comfortable speaking before thousands of protesters gathered in April on the national mall to promote immigrant rights, testifying on Capitol Hill, or in the Oval Office, where President Bush sought his input and advice on a range of issues. A prodigious fundraiser, McCarrick leaves the Washington church in a strong financial position. McCarrick had his share of detractors, particularly those who thought him soft on pro-choice Catholic politicians. But his friendly and self-effacing manner won him many friends.

Can Wuerl match that record? He might not even try.

“His style will be very different than Cardinal McCarrick’s and he might come across as a much more reserved bishop,” said Cesareo.

Wuerl will be installed as archbishop of Washington on June 22.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: